Here is a very sweet allegory, written for us by long-time conference friend (AND multiple year contest-winner!) Susan Pieters.
I’m standing in a crowd of eight hundred people waiting to get in to the Writer’s Adventure Park, but as I look nearby at the rather ordinary people, I’m wondering if we’re all suckers. I’ve got my manuscript in my hand, like many others here. I’ve spent a lot of time on it, and now I’m spending my hard-earned cash. How much more can I give for this wanna-be dream? I wonder if I should turn back, but then the gates open. I’m in.
A beaming lady with long blond hair uses her whole arm to wave at me. Does she know me? Her striped stockings look familiar. I wave back before I realize she’s waving at everyone coming in the gate. “Welcome to Surreyland,” she says, handing me a map. Some teenagers gather nearby. “First-timers and students over here,” she says, beckoning the group towards the kiddie section. It’s my first time here, but I ignore her because I paid five hundred dollars and I want more than pony rides.
I glance at the map. It advises making a reservation at the Blue Blood Café, where volunteer doctors will examine a drop of your blood under a microscope and show you your weaknesses. But I hate needles. I want to get down to business, so I fold the map into thirds and cram it into my pocket. I will trust to my instincts. I take a firm hold of my manuscript and follow the crowd.
People are hurrying—even running—towards a massive wooden roller coaster that dominates the skyline of the park. I join the swarm and reach the line-up. The guy behind me starts chatting. “It’s from New York,” he says. “The best ones are built there.” I nod like I know what he’s talking about. An attendant hands everyone a page entitled, “The Ride Starts Here: Character Worksheet.” I pull out a pencil and scribble down answers about my novel’s protagonist. My answers are clever and I wonder if someone will collect the papers. I place my answer sheet on top of my manuscript; might someone here read my novel? Will they recognize my talent instantly? As I get to the head of the line, a lightly built, shrewd-looking man checks to make sure I’ve filled out my worksheet. He passes it back (ignoring the manuscript) and lets me sit in one of the joined carts waiting on the metal rails.
I look around. “Where are the safety straps?” I ask.
The man checking papers ignores me, but the chap behind me says, “This is an advanced ride, didn’t you know?”
I’m still holding on to my pile of papers as the carts jerk forward, the rumble of an old tractor engine sounding as we climb upwards. I hear the click-click-click as the ratchets snap in place and we rise towards the starting point. It’s a free ride coaster, gravity-propelled after the first and highest point. It doesn’t look too high and I figure the ride will be gentle since it doesn’t require a seat belt.
“Oh crap,” the guy behind me says. “I forgot to read the last question.”
I glance down at my worksheet. I could swear that question wasn’t there when I got into the cart. The fine print reads, “What is the one thing your character would never, never, NEVER do?”
I fumble with my pencil but have no time to answer the question because we are near the top of the rise. I catch a quick glance of scenic Surreyland before I see a figure step up to the tracks ahead, the same shrewd-looking man who seated us below. He leans hard against a long metal lever and with a creak the lead car turns to switch tracks. Our carts climb up above the flagpoles as we are diverted to a higher level.
But there is no higher level. Is there?
Our carts slip forward, then plunge in freefall. Papers fly out of my hands as I grab onto the sides of the car. My manuscript is ripped away by the wind as the car careens downward, twisting wildly on the track, if there is a track. I am screaming but I can’t hear myself because the guy behind me is so loud. We make a hairpin turn, then take several curves. I close my eyes as we whip into a blizzard of papers falling from above.
I survive. The cart rolls to a stop, and I step out trembling.
The guy behind me looks green. “That ride was worth the whole ticket,” he croaks hoarsely.
I limp away with many others who have lost their drafts. I could kick myself for passing up the pony rides. I consider going home, but I’m near a gentle-looking bumper-boat ride that is nearly empty. I could use a rest first. At the entrance is a grey-haired woman with large glasses wearing a nice dress and necklace. She is leading a man with crutches into a small boat. I decide it’s safe to enter. A beautiful fifty-something woman with long reddish-brown hair, wearing a hippie-tie-die dress, passes me a paddle. “It’s quieter,” she says, smiling serenely. I paddle to the other side of the pond, where a Zen-like garden meets the shore, a willow tree bending and gracefully touching the water.
I relax. The quiet seeps in to me. Every leaf of the tree wavers in front of me, hanging like a green waterfall. I see a slight ripple beside a rock, and two tiny wet eyes peep up through the green water. A frog. His eyes are black. I’ve never stared into a frog’s face before. It is so still here that I notice everything. This is what it’s all about, I think, this is the essence of being a writer. And then it comes to me: this is the poet’s corner. Oh no. I don’t want to be a poet. Poets don’t make money. I break eye contact with the frog and start rowing for the exit.
Where to go next? I dig in my pocket for the map, but it’s not there. I look on the pavement but I don’t see it. A regal looking woman stands nearby. She has fashionably coloured red hair under a tidy bellboy cap, wears a tailored brass-buttoned vest, and is holding a broom and dustpan. I assume she is a groundskeeper, but something about this doesn’t seem right. I approach her and ask if she might have a map to spare. She regards me with keen eyes. “This must be your first time. Just let me check a moment,” she says, her British enunciation worthy of Sherlock Holmes. She reaches into her side bag and pulls out a thrice-folded map.
“Thanks,” I say, recognizing it as mine. “How did you know…” But she has disappeared.
I look around, wondering where she went. I see a metal shed with a door that says, “Mechanical Room.” I peek inside, but the groundskeeper is not there. Instead I see a tall, lanky woman with broad shoulders, wearing coveralls. “You need to know your tools,” she is saying, gesturing at a large workbench, metal implements spread out all over. She holds up a crescent wrench and twists it to adjust the size. “Make sure it fits properly,” she says, handing it over to a man who scurries down a back stairway towards the sound of whirring gears. “All these fancy rides,” she says, “But nothing runs without proper knowledge of the mechanics.”
I leave the shed and consult my map. I don’t want to miss Romance Castle, so I make my way towards twin turrets with silk banners. I cross a quaint drawbridge and at the portcullis find three middle-aged women drinking port together. I’ve interrupted their conversation, asking to be let in. They look me up and down, and one of them says, “The green door.” I see a series of coloured doors, like a shattered rainbow, and I open one the color of a dark forest. It closes behind me with a click.
I’m sure that’s Snow White singing at a well. I gawk at her beautiful long dress, the pale skin of her arms, the tightly cinched waistline. I walk up to her as she draws up a bucket of water. She splashes the water into a trough and turns to me. “Your turn now,” she says, tossing the empty bucket back into the well.
I glance around, wondering if she shouldn’t be waiting for Prince Charming, but I don’t see him climbing over the wall. I try turning the handle that raises the rope and the bucket. It’s so heavy that I must use both hands, grunting to keep the crank from slipping backwards. I break out in a sweat as the bucket reaches the top. Dainty little Snow White made this look so easy. These heroines are a lot tougher than I realized.
I hold the crank steady in one hand and lean over the well, reaching with my free hand for the bucket. Just then I hear a voice cackle behind me. “Did you make a wish?”
I am pushed from behind. I have one hand locked onto the bucket as I fall into the well, screaming.
There is no water, only darkness. My screams echo above me as I fall. I grab onto the rope above the bucket, is it still attached at the top? I keep falling. There is no water and no bottom and I know I am about to die when the rope slows, stretching miraculously like a bungie cord. I hold the rope tight as I bounce to a stop, dangling in the middle of the well.
I feel something brush against my arm. “Let go of the rope,” a voice says. “Trust me.” I let go of the rope as strong arms pull me into a side tunnel. The bucket drops away behind me and I hear a splintering crash below, as hideous laughter echoes from far above.
“Thank you,” I say to the stranger, “Tell me that wasn’t supposed to happen.” There is a dim light in the tunnel. I see the man is a soldier in a dark green military uniform. He has a slender scabbard buckled at his side and the ornate sword hilt gleams in the dim light. His face is ruggedly handsome, his hair midnight black and his eyes emerald green. I forget words exist.
He bends over me tenderly. “Are you all right?” His fingers stroke my cheek, brushing away dirt. He bends his face close to mine and I stop breathing. He leans forward, his lips almost touching mine, then he pulls away. “Forgive me,” he says. “I forget myself. We’re not safe here.”
I would argue the point but he says, “This way,” and he opens a door in the tunnel wall. I go through first, surprised when I walk into sunlight. Behind me, I hear a slam. I turn around; the door has shut on the soldier. I try the handle but it won’t turn. I kick at the door.
“Enjoy the ride?” a voice asks behind me. I whirl around; I am at the front of the castle, and the three women are staring at me with mild amusement.
“I… Can I go again?”
One of them laughs but the center woman elbows her in the ribs. “Of course. Come back later when you’re a little more…rested,” says the kindly woman. “We’ll save the blue door for you. You’ll like that one.”
I leave reluctantly across the drawbridge. Next to the castle is an unmarked field full of weeds and piles of dirt. A woman with long greying hair leans against the crooked wooden fence in her jeans and tee shirt. She has a shovel in her hand and her face is sun-worn like a farmer’s. As I approach, she waves me in without a word. I see several other people wandering the field carrying a shovel, looking frustrated. They pass me their shovel as they leave.
The woman at the gate walks past me. “I’m not much good at being a tour guide,” she says. “Just help yourself.” I walk around, seeing little holes here and there. I wonder if I should leave like the others, but I decide to ask for some help.
“Excuse me, just what are we digging for?” I ask.
The woman turns away from a fairly deep hole where she is busy and regards me. “Scraps,” she says.
“Oh,” I say. I try again. “Can you tell me where to dig?”
“Sure,” she says, and leads me to a corner with undisturbed weeds. “Try here.”
I dig for five minutes, against my better judgment, but then my shovel hits something that clinks.
The woman is over in an instant. “What did you get?” she asks. We part the dirt with out hands and collect a dozen metal bits the size of teeth. She brushes them off. “Type-set letters from a printing press. Roman alphabet. Heavy, aren’t they? Made mostly of lead.” I press one of the little letters into my hand and it leaves the stamp of an odd “f”. The woman says, “That’s an ‘s.’ The font is old; I’d guess these are sixteenth century.” She pours the rest of the letters into my hands. “Well done.” She walks away.
I hold the letters. “Where do you want me to put these?”
“You get to keep them,” she says, already digging in the ground.
“But…” I say.
“Get on with you,” she says. I stuff them in my pocket and leave.
The next archway says “Paintball” in colourful letters. A dozen army camouflage costumes hang on hooks by the door. I decide to put one on and finish with the buttons when the gate clangs closed behind me. I turn to see the regal lady groundskeeper. She hangs a sign on the gate, Ride Closed. I begin to unbutton the costume when a professional-looking man in fatigues jumps the gate towards me.
“You,” he says, “Take this.”
He passes me a paintball rifle, which is much heavier than I would have thought. I follow him to the obstacle course of rocks and bushes. He points to the far wall.
“Three men in black are about to crawl over that wall. Cover me.” I kneel behind a boulder as the curly brown-haired man sprints in a wide arc towards the far wall. I see a head peep over the wall. I take aim and fire; the head retreats. I wait. I see a head and a gun. Before I can fire, I hear a ping on the boulder in front of me. I look down, expecting to see paint all over, but there’s none. I fire off another shot and the gun above the wall disappears again.
I hear a shout and rapid firing. Then silence. I don’t see the man with short brown hair any more, so I stand up.
The paintball course is empty, so I walk back to the entrance and take off my outfit and hang up the rifle with the others. Only the rifle doesn’t match.
The man with short brown hair comes in, breathless. He has red smeared over his clothes. Not paint, blood. “They missed you?” he asks me, looking me up and down.
I nod, staring at the blood on his clothes. “Are you okay?”
“It’s not mine,” he says. “Thanks to you. Good work.”
“This is for real?” I ask. I look at the rifle. Was I firing real bullets?
The man regards me with surprisingly gentle brown eyes. “It’s always for real, if you dare.”
I hear a bustling sound from behind the camouflage suits. Out of a closet comes a woman with her arms loaded down with paintbrushes, silk flowers, fabric, blocks of white Styrofoam, and a bag that says, “Michael’s.” I can hardly see her face from behind a plastic flamingo, but her harried voice says, “What happened to your clothes? Did I miss something?”
He says, “It’s all taken care of,” and gives me a little push towards the locked gate, which I climb over. Around the entrance is yellow police line tape. That red-haired groundskeeper is on the ball.
The next building is very plain, like a high-school gymnasium, a huge cement-block structure with no windows, just two sets of steel doors at the center. I open the set of doors on the right and am surprised that the building is divided inside, a center wall separating the building into twin halves. I peek in the right side and see a science lab with a rocket in the center. Spotlights glare off the bent head of a man working on the rocket’s engine. An assistant bumps him and his glasses slide off his nose, crashing to the floor.
I try the second pair of steel doors. This half of the building is even quieter. A woman sits at a reception desk just inside the entrance; behind her is a long hallway with many doors. The woman looks up from her many papers; it looks like she’s drawing a map. She smiles pleasantly. She’s middle aged and dresses middle-class American. She says hello with a mid-southern accent, and I peg her as the type to listen to soothing elevator muzak. “Are you the secretary?” I ask.
Her smile fades a little. “No,” she says, looking down. She picks up a key from her desk and hands it to me. “First door on the left.” She goes back to her papers, working intently.
I fit the key into the lock. This place looks boring; it might be the administration building. Then I notice a bit of smoke coming out from under the door as I open it. Ahead of me, flashes of light, in lightening reds and blues, reflect and fill a hazy atmosphere. Cries of terror and hope call out on one side. I hear singing. Above me, something is flying--something big. I don’t let go of the handle of the door, but I take one step inside and see a sparkling glass pathway, and a bridge made of ice, or diamonds, or blue fire.
This is not the administration building. I look to the left and see a man with a blazing sword running towards me, yelling a word I do not know. He comes closer and raises his sword high.
I step backwards into the hallway and pull the door closed with all my strength, locking it and taking out the key.
The woman is still working at her desk. I return the key to her. “So soon?” She sounds disappointed.
She looks so calm and normal, but I’m no longer deceived. “You would never listen to muzak, would you,” I say. She shakes her head and chuckles. I ask, “Why is this building divided in half?”
“Oh, the wall? Some publisher’s idea. On the other side, all magic has to be scientifically explained. On this side, we don’t bother.” She glances around and lowers her voice. “But we have some secret passages to get across when no one’s looking.”
I thank her as I leave, and again follow the crowds towards the busy center of Surreyland. Booths line the wide walkway. One booth advertises a game of blind man’s bluff. I see a blonde woman with a southern accent wrapping blindfolds around people’s heads, pushing them into a padded room. “Use your senses!” she shouts. “Smell the others in the room. Listen for them breathing. Feel the weight shift on the floor under your feet. Feel the heat in the air brush against your skin as they pass near…” Several people bump into each other and fall over.
Another booth leads to a hall of mirrors. One mirror rounds out a woman so she is wider than a beachball. “You have a problem with a sagging middle,” the young gatekeeper points out with a smirk. “Move quick or you’ll lose your reader.”
I smell food from a crowded pub. People raise mugs of beer at one table, singing new words to “It’s a Small World After All.” They’re singing, “We got published after all…”
A woman bent over double staggers towards the bar, clutching at her chest. She’s just left the House of Horrors. After my other rides, I’m not stupid enough to enter a haunted house, but I can’t resist seeing who runs it. He’s not what I expect. He’s a tall, handsome man in a business suit, a sparse grey beard lending him dignity. He looks like a lawyer. Next to him is a lovely female assistant. I say, “Do you really belong here?”
He turns a wary eye on me, and says in a slow voice, “The question is, do you belong here?”
I see the wall behind him is plastered with black and white photos and old newspaper clippings. I see some airplanes, some war scenes, and some mug shots of criminals. Smiling at the center is a black and white framed photo of a handsome airline pilot who resembles the man before me.
“I’m not sure. Isn’t this place haunted?” I ask. “Where’s the Dracula stuff?”
He smiles. He doesn’t have fangs. But he says very clearly, “We only deal with real ghosts here.”
I back away quickly. The next booth is a shooting gallery, but instead of toy guns, I am handed an English longbow. The man who hands me the bow is bearded like Robin Hood. “I prefer rifles,” he says in a British accent. “Give a sharpe aim. These take more practice, but give ’er a try. We’ve a lady who will show you how.”
He escorts me to the shooting platform where I view the target range. The targets are beautifully painted historical scenes, and I would think it a shame to put an arrow through them, they are so detailed. They look real. I stand there studying them.
The man snaps his fingers in front of my face. “Wake up,” he says, his blue eyes twinkling. “Don’t get lost in your research. We’re here to have an adventure!”
I nod assent and he leaves, but after I raise my bow and take aim, I hesitate.
“Don’t worry, they can take it,” says a throaty voice that resonates like a cello. The woman beside me wears white flowing robes draped over one shoulder in the ancient Greek style, her long black hair falls halfway down her back, and in her firm grip is a well-used longbow. “Let me show you how,” she says, and nocks her bow. She aims and lets fly; she pierces the landscape, straight into the painted chest of a tall red-headed man. “Right in the heart,” she says with satisfaction.
I pick up my bow and try. I can barely draw it back. The lady helps me, but I fumble and the arrow falls short.
“How do you do this so easily?” I ask.
“To be honest, I’m not sure. I just do this,” she says, demonstrating again with effortless grace. This time, she hits the redheaded man right in the crotch. I blush but she smiles and winks at me.
Encouraged, I try again and aim for a crown of laurels hanging high. I nick one leaf off the wreath. She applauds. “Well done,” she says. “Next year you might win the crown.”
Next door is an open-air stage, and people are gathering for a concert. The poster advertises a performer called the Piper. I take a seat as a tall man in full kilt and regalia strides onto the stage. I expect bagpipes but instead his rich deep voice fills the air without need of accompaniment. He sings a familiar tune and invites the audience to sing along. We do. It’s all jolly fun until I try to stop. I can’t. When he sings, I sing. When he raises his arms, we all stand. He points with his finger and the audience starts to move into a line, still singing. The Piper walks off the stage and we follow him; his song has us completely in his control. He leads us out a back entrance. We look around wildly, still singing, though some are gesturing senselessly with their hands. I remember the story of the Pied Piper and how he led the rats into the sea and the children to God-knows-where...
The singing stops. I am not on the edge of a cliff, but simply down the back lane of the theme park, and with me are a hundred audience members gasping for breath. The Piper stands tall in the midst of us and says, “Friends, learn to lead your audience. Enthrall them. Take them with you, and you will go far.” His kilt swings as he leaves, his lesson over.
I’m exhausted. I haven’t seen all the exhibits yet but I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I’m relieved at the sign for the next ride, “Appointments Only--Fully Booked.” I watch as people are strapped into seats facing outward at the foot of a tall vertical contraption, the base of a crane or a construction elevator. A warning bell goes off and they shoot up like rockets, their screams lost in the heavens. Their screams return as they fall towards the ground, braking to a sudden stop before shooting back up again and then falling. As they finally unbuckle, some stumble away with big grins and others look ready to puke.
“What was that all about?” I ask a woman with a grin.
“Did you see me fly?” she asks. “He liked my pitch. I’m sure he’ll publish my manuscript. I went up so high…” She lifts her arms outward like a bird and floats away. I look at her feet. They’re not touching the ground.
But a stocky man behind her has a thick wad of paper crumpled in his heavy hands. He stuffs it into the trash bin. “Ah, rejection,” he mutters.
“No,” I say, reaching into the garbage can. “Don’t throw it away, all that work. That’s a waste.”
He puts his hand on my arm to stop me from pulling out his pages. His hands are thick with hard callouses that snag on my sweater. His beefy arms seem covered by a leather hide, but it’s his thick skin. “No, it’s not a waste,” he says. “Leave it there.”
“But you’re giving up—” I protest.
“Never,” he says. “That’s failure. But rejection makes me stronger. It toughens my skin, and teaches me the keenest lessons.” I stare at his stout neck. A guillotine would bounce off it. He stares at me with granite eyes. “Where’s your manuscript?”
“Scattered,” I admit, looking at my feet. “Four hundred sheets to the wind.”
“But did you learn something?”
I consider my shoes. “For one moment, I grasped it all. My characters were real, the conflict riveting, the plot tight. Everything worked. But it wasn’t the novel I had written.”
“It will be, someday,” he says. “Perseverance. That’s the ticket.”
A bell tolls. The lady groundskeeper ushers people towards the front gates; it’s time to go. I approach her. “You’re a teacher too, aren’t you? Why do you wear this outfit?”
She smiles. “To teach you to observe closely. Besides, I like the servant’s uniform. I’ve found the greatest Teacher of all was a servant.” Then she whispers in my ear, “Congratulations on finding those letters.”
I look down and pat the bulge in my pocket. I had forgotten them. “How did you know…” I ask, but she has disappeared in the crowd.
A woman in a feather boa is waving at all of us. “Don’t forget your door prize!” she says as we near the exit.
I have no idea what she is talking about, but when I get to the exit gate there is a man stamping the backs of our hands as we leave.
“Is this stamp for re-entry?” I ask. “I thought you were closing.”
“We are,” he says. “But you aren’t.”
I look down at my hand. “I can’t see where you stamped it.”
“U.V. ink,” he says. I see a purple strobe light nearby and pass my hand under it. In block letters, it says WRITER.
“Is this the door prize? How long will this last?” I ask, a little disappointed. I suppose I could give up washing my hands.
He gives me a look as if I amuse him, and I notice he has such deep blue eyes. Is that a saber dangling behind his navy blue uniform? “Special ink. Lasts forever,” he says, as he pushes me through the gate. “But you can come back next year. Blue door. I’ll be waiting.”
I love this story, Susan! Thank you for sharing.
also blogging as leftwriter